The Art Of Data Storytelling: Are We Beasts Of Emotion More Than Logic?

Author: Dr. Jennifer Cronin

Three people have a discussion at a table with multiple laptops open.

This past weekend my husband and I were treated to an exceptionally nice dinner in Chicago by our best friends. They had purchased a table for four and gifted us our seats as a Christmas present.

For several weeks, we looked forward to the outing. What could be better than indulging in a 15-course meal that consisted of food flown in from around the world?

I can assure you that the restaurant did not disappoint.

The cocktails were shaken by a machine that was 1 of 30 in existence, the decor was taken from the ceiling and turned into serving platters, deserts floated in the air, and fire diffused aromas that heightened the sense of taste and smell. The food was no doubt some of the best I’ve ever had (and probably will ever have).

But the more I reflect on this experience, the more I realize that my love of this restaurant is not coming from the food, the creativity, or the restaurant’s prestigious accolades. I’d developed a connection to this place for a totally different reason.  

My husband and I watched an episode of Chef’s Table that featured the restaurant and I had become completely encapsulated by how the restaurant came to be and the vision of the man who created it.

It was a story that involved tension, obstacles, hope, a fight for life, and one man’s relentless pursuit of his dream to create something innovative and dynamic that questioned the status quo. The story had allowed the restaurant, the food, and the experience to become humanized.

My experience of developing a personal, meaningful connection is not an anomaly nor is it reserved for the culinary arts. It’s the very reason why the skill “talented storyteller” tops the list of desired qualifications across fields; yes, even in the field of data science. In fact, there is a biological, psychological, and neurological basis to storytelling, according to the neuroeconomist, Paul Zak.

When most of us think about advocating for an idea we go to facts and figures or the rational side of the argument. This causes two parts of our brain to be activated: the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.

If we tell a story, our brain chemistry changes dramatically: additional areas of our brain are ignited, dopamine is released, and our audience is more likely to remember our message, be persuaded, and feel a personnel connection to the idea and to the storyteller.

As a result, data science has become so much more than analyzing data. Data scientists must be talented storytellers who can translate the insights uncovered in the data into actionable business outcomes that can be understood by non-technical decision makers. The most robust data and statistical analysis isn’t going to matter if you’re not able to communicate the impact of the data you uncovered in a compelling way.

But exactly what does it mean to be a data storyteller?

Data storytelling has become a buzzword that few understand, much less know how to do well. These are a few tips that I’ve found helpful when developing my own data stories:

  1. Know your data and ask “what’s the point?” You can’t tell a good story without knowing your data inside and out and asking the most important question: what’s the point? What do you want your audience to know and why should they care? Determine what really stands out about the data, the questions that should be asked about it, and how the organization can use it to solve a problem.
  2. Be curious and creative. Before you open up your software of choice and begin drafting slides, get your creative juices flowing. This may involve establishing a creative work environment, physically exercising, spending time in nature, or looking for inspiration from other data storytelling experts. There is a story in the data that’s been there all along, but you need to be in a creative mindset to tell it.
  3. Make it human and define the conflict. All good stories have a relatable hero who encounters a roadblock and emerges transformed. Data stories should, too. Consider how you can humanize the problem that you are solving via your data story? Develop a main character and define her/his conflict. It should be the same conflict or tension that your audience is feeling – remember, you are trying to make the data relevant to their experiences.

To learn additional tips on how to be an effective data storyteller, check out Notre Dame’s online data science master’s program which has developed a course specifically designed to alter the way information is processed via the power of data visualization and storytelling.

This program graduatesthree-dimensional data scientists:” those who have a strong foundation in quantitative analysis and technical skills, but who can also think ethically and are expert storytellers.

A distinguishing feature of this program is that it has been designed to integrate concepts and skills taught in classes throughout the curriculum. Faculty have collaborated, shared material, and found ways to incorporate presentation and communication skills (such as storytelling) throughout the program so that students get multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback on their storytelling abilities.

Learn more about how Notre Dame’s online master’s in data science prepares its graduates to be exceptional storytellers and other trends influencing the emerging field of data science in 5 Key Trends Shaping the Rise of the Three Dimensional Data Scientist